THE BLOG

Hezbollah Still Holds Sway in Lebanon

While Lebanon's democratic election should be celebrated, it will not affect the power currents running beneath the surface.

Before we get carried away with excitement at the victory of the "pro-western" (US and Saudi backed) 14 March alliance in the Lebanese election, it is worth remembering that real power in the country is based away from the parliament that is now busy organizing a new government.

Parliament's lack of power raises serious questions about the future of Hezbollah's role and the shape of issue-based politics in such a fragile country.

Before the election many feared the worst: a Hezbollah takeover of the Lebanese parliament through the ballot box. That could have ended the flow of US/Saudi money and perhaps put Lebanon on the road to becoming Gaza Strip mark two. But with more Lebanese living outside the country than inside it, the flying-in of Christian voters from abroad tipped the balance in an outdated electoral system in which one third of the population holds half of the parliamentary seats.

Lebanon is widely regarded as the "chessboard" of the Middle East, where all outside powers have pawn proxies, but what does this mean for domestic politics based on delivering policies chosen by the country's population?

Those issues seemed to be almost completely absent through the western lens that saw the elections as a windsock as to what direction the Middle East was heading, to extremism or to moderation.

On May 7 last year Hezbollah, still the most powerful military force in the country, proved that if the government made decisions it was unhappy with then Beirut could be overrun in less than four hours. Ominously, Hassan Nasrallah's response to this month's defeat at the polls contained a fair amount of sour grapes as he admitted that "the opposition accepts the results of the elections with a democratic spirit regardless of our evaluation of the electoral process and the methods that were used during it, including huge expenditure, sectarian and sometimes racial incitement, and open foreign interferences".

Hezbollah's "democratic spirit" may be sorely tested in the coming months. The issue of Hezbollah's weapons remains firmly on the table and now, having lost the opportunity for increased democratic legitimacy, the group may choose to remind people of its resistance mandate. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Israel upped security on its northern border in preparation for exactly such a response. The likelihood is that regardless of whether Hezbollah is brought into a "national unity" government, as happened after the last elections, or remains in nominal opposition, the movement's main interests will remain untouched.

Indeed, the greatest evidence of an "Obama effect" may not be the election result itself but rather the reaction of Syria and Iran. Speaking at Chatham House in London, Lebanon-watcher Hussain Abdul-Hassain described Syria as a big loser in the elections. Yet while elements of the Syrian regime will always look to milk the Lebanese cash cow as they have in the past, the issue of the Hariri tribunal was always the greater threat. The tribunal seems to have been significantly defanged in contrast to the Mehlis days of conspiracy and intrigue and, with the recent release of the four generals originally linked to the assassination, Syria is confident of avoiding serious incrimination. The Obama effect and its slow evolutionary engagement with both Syria and Iran reduces the level of threat felt in Tehran and, in particular Damascus, leading the regimes less inclined to undermine events in Lebanon.

Obama's greatest success to date in the Middle East is to maintain a holistic approach that recognizes the linkage between the various arenas of state and sub-state politics. Lebanon's election may be a litmus test showing tacit acceptance by the "radical" Syrian-Iranian alliance of the new diplomatic US re-engagement in a post-Bush Middle East.

Whether or not it will lead to real and significant change in Lebanon is a different matter. There was an immediate positive bounce in the Lebanese economy and the language of conciliation echoed from the victors, with the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, stressing that "the logic of the rule of the state should prevail, and a capable state can embrace all the Lebanese".

Yet there remains a significant dichotomy between a sovereign state whose rule prevails and the current Lebanese model of sectarian quotas and powerful armed movements that operate below the level of the state with support from external patrons. While a peaceful democratic election should be celebrated, its real impact is likely to be at a regional rather than local level. Of more immediate concern could be Hezbollah's reaction to its political marginalization -- a reaction that may be further radicalized if a more moderate and less militant leader, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, is elected in Iran.